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How Billy Napier has made his offenses tough to scout and stop

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Billy Napier’s offense has made good use of both the ability to gather intelligence and a tried-and-true run play.

NCAA Football: UL Lafayette at Alabama Marvin Gentry-USA TODAY Sports

After Billy Napier’s introductory press conference, many were struck by his quote about hiring “an army of people.” Since then, I’ve seen Twitter accounts, t-shirts, and all kinds of paraphernalia emblazoned with “Billy’s Army.” The quote seems to be the standout from the press conference, without question.

But there was another quote that piqued my interest in Napier’s opening statement:

“We will attack by scheme. More importantly, we’ll attack with a relentless mindset. We’re going to be unique. We’re going to be a tough three-day prep for the opponent.

With some of the initial coaching staff smoke around Willy Korn, I thought this may indicate some Coastal Carolina flavor to the offense. Napier went on in that press conference to clarify that he would be calling plays and that it would be his offense. I have previously gone in depth on some of the schemes that Napier ran while at Louisiana, but I wanted to further elaborate on what can make Florida a difficult three day prep.

Motions and Shifts

Watch a few minutes of Napier’s offense at Louisiana, and you will likely see a motion, a shift, or possibly both. Pre-snap motion and shifting puts a ton of stress on the defense and gives the offense multiple advantages.

The defense must communicate and re-align to each movement. This is something that requires time to practice, especially if the offense will be using a lot of shifts. Shifting typically involves multiple players moving from one formation to another, often changing the strength of the formation — or the side of the formation where the most eligible receivers are and/or the side the tight end is on.

There are many defenses that align to the strength of the offense. For those defenses, best practices dictate that when the offense shifts a tight end from one side to another, defenders must move in response. This creates opportunity for the offense: If that defense has specific players for the strong and weak side, a quick and efficient offense may catch the defense way out of position at the snap.

The defense may simply respond to motion by “bumping over,” a simple shift in which defensive players just move into the new position dictated by the new strength. Sometimes “bumping over” can lead to a lag in defenders repositioning that leaves gaps in the defense.

Below, a Florida shift leaves Alabama out of position, resulting in a big run.

Another benefit of shifting and motion is gathering information. If I motion the back out of the backfield to the No. 1 receiver position, who goes with him? Does the corner bump out or does a linebacker follow? This type of motion will give the QB a great indicator of coverage.

Below, the quarterback sees the linebacker follow the back in motion. This confirms man coverage and the quarterback finds a great matchup, though the receiver drops the ball.

Gathering information via motion can be done with far more than one particular play, too. Motioning and shifting can give you multiple looks at how the defense is going to line up to your formations.

Say I have my offense start in one formation and note how the defense lines up. I shift and the defense adjusts; maybe I also motion, and the defense makes another adjustment. If I do this early in the game, I may well have learned how the defense is going to line up to face multiple formations — and all for the price of one play.

I can take that information and weaponize it later.

The Versatility of 12 Personnel

Last season, I really thought the Florida offensive staff was going to bust out a bunch of different personnel groupings. I even went so far as to track them each week. To my surprise and dismay, Florida was pretty simple in their groupings. (It seemed obvious to me that the best position group in offense were the running backs, but the Gators did not exploit that talent pool via playing multiple backs: They only had two backs on the field together for just over 30 snaps the entire season.)

Dan Mullen’s staff decided that 11 (one back, one tight end) personnel was their best grouping and Florida lined up in it on around 90% of their snaps. 11 personnel — which stresses a defense primarily by deploying a variety of looks involving three wide receivers, with the possibilities multiplied by the number of ways its back or tight end can be deployed — is seen every Saturday all over college football. Defenses have started to catch up to 11’s prevalence, though: That’s why you have seen the size and style of linebackers, for instance, change so much over recent years, and why nickel personnel is the base personnel grouping for so many defenses.

I feel that defenses have gotten so good at matching 11 personnel that you really need to have one-on-one matchup winners to maximize this group. Florida had that in 2020, when Florida had Kyle Pitts and Kadarius Toney. Without them, Florida didn’t get nearly so many one-on-one wins in the 2021 season.

Florida’s second-most used personnel grouping last season is one a lot of the game’s brightest minds have started to gravitate towards, and one that Napier has used quite a bit in the past: 12 personnel. 12 personnel features one back, two tight ends and two receivers.

Often, the two tight ends are different types of players: You will have an “attached” tight end and a “move” tight end. The “attached” tight end is your traditional, hand in the dirt tight end. This player is typically somebody that can help in the run game at the point of attack. The “move” tight end is off the line and used all over the field. When you hear “H-back,” people are referring to the “move” tight end. This player is typically smaller than an attached tight end, but can be moved all over pre- and post-snap to gain advantages.

(One of the better examples of how teams have used “attached” and “move” tight ends together is how the New England Patriots once used Rob Gronkowski and some other guy we don’t talk about much together.)

Napier has used 12 in the past, and you hear the recruits, like Arlis Boardingham, discussing which position they are going to play, a strong indicator that he’ll use it at Florida.

As defenses have downsized and gotten quicker to combat spread offenses, they have afforded real advantages to offenses that are comfortable going big. Going into the College Football Playoff National Championship Game, Alabama had one of the best defenses in the country against the run. But Georgia used multiple tight end personnel groupings repeatedly, especially in the second half, and was able to overpower the Crimson Tide.

Most defenses, even the very talented ones, aren’t equipped to deal with bigger personnel groupings if those groupings aren’t tells — essentially, if a team can run its entire offense out of these groupings. Almost all defenses have sub packages to combat an offense going big, but those are usually centered around stopping the run; being able to pass effectively out of 12 complicates things considerably for the defense.

In previous stops, Napier has used 12 as a big part of his offense. He runs the normal offense and doesn’t simply bring in the big boys to only run. This puts the defense in a bind. Do you run out one of your sub packages for a large majority of the game taking starters off the field? Or do you hope that the defense you have built to stop 11 personnel spread teams has enough beef to stand up in the run game? If you have some difference makers at tight end, it leaves the defense with very few good answers.

Wide Zone

If you have been watching the NFL at all over the last 20 years, you have seen wide zone.

This scheme — really a bunch of variations on a play usually referred to as Wide Zone or an outside zone — was first popularized by the late-’90s Denver Broncos. Offensive line coach Alex Gibbs and head coach Mike Shanahan used it win back-to-back Super Bowls with Terrell Davis as the back, but it would also go on to produce 1,000 yard rushers like it was a bodily function. The scheme is still quite prevalent in the NFL, and it has made its way into the college game.

The play seems simple enough on the surface. Instead of blocking a specific man on the defense, each offensive blocker is charged with blocking an area. For instance, if I call zone to the left, all my linemen should be looking to block their play-side gap, the one to the left of where they begin the play. Then, typically, the back’s aiming point is the play-side tackle or wider, so he will head toward that point and make a read based on the flow of the defense to determine if he needs to alter his course.

It sounds simple. But the beauty of the play is that it is simple in theory but difficult to master. Gibbs — who passed away last July — was a big proponent of “majoring” in wide zone. He felt that the play had so much nuance and so many opportunities for variation that teams needed to spend a majority of their time in the run game on it.

First, the linemen have reads and calls they need to make pre-snap. They have to determine if they are covered or uncovered by the defender’s alignment. If they have a defender lined up on them or in their play-side gap, they are considered covered by the defender. If they have nobody lined up on them or in their play-side gap, they are considered uncovered. Each lineman has a specific set of rules, calls, and footwork that needs to be executed based on how the defense has lined up.

And that, in turn, is why it’s so difficult for a defense to prepare for wide zone: It can hit in a variety of places, and the offense has usually answered the questions asked by the defense before the snap. When those answers are correct, the effect can be devastating: The offense moves the defense horizontally and creates vertical seams for the running back to dash through for explosive plays.

Below, in game one of the 2021 season, Louisiana motioned the slot receiver across the formation and ran wide zone into the boundary. The line blocks it well and the motion causes the alley player to the boundary to vacate. The back doesn’t even have to get off his track and takes it all the way in for a touchdown.

Later in 2021, Louisiana runs wide zone with split flow from the move tight end. That tight end appears to be bluffing the backside defensive end and will become a lead blocker for the quarterback if he was to pull the ball. The line works to the left and the flow of the defense opens a vertical seam for the back. The back does a great job of sticking his foot in the ground, getting vertical and hitting his head on the goal post.

If you were wondering how well Louisiana-turned-Florida running backs coach Jabbar Juluke teaches the wide zone, look no further than the clip below. The play is from the opening game of the 2020 season against Iowa State. Louisiana again uses motion as eye candy and gets the defense out of position. The back makes his read quickly, sticks his foot in the ground and gets vertical for a big gain.

That back is Elijah Mitchell, who was drafted in the sixth round and is now the starting running back for the San Francisco 49ers — coached by Kyle Shanahan, son of Mike — and setting records as a rookie. While it took injuries to get Mitchell elevated to starter, Kyle Shanahan and 49ers general manager John Lynch investing a pick in Mitchell is about as good of a wide zone stamp of approval as a player can get in the NFL Draft, and Mitchell’s production at the position is proof that he can earn his keep.

Schematically, Napier’s offenses have presented defenses with elements that are very difficult to defend consistently. You can see in the clips above how he uses motion and personnel to create issues for the defense.

If Florida is able to combine effective motion and the benefits of 12 personnel with majoring in wide zone in the run game, that will make Napier’s offenses even more difficult to stop. (Wide zone also leads to great opportunities in the play-action passing game.)

The offense will be a difficult prep for opponents, but what about the defense? In my next post, I’ll be taking a closer look at Patrick Toney and what kind of defense he will be bringing to Gainesville.